My February was unexpectedly busy and started with a couple of sessions with seven delightful chefs from California. We started off with a visit to Volpetti and dinner at La Tavernaccia. The crispy, succulent maialino was a universal favourite and set the mood for a happy couple of days. We met early next morning for shopping in the Esquilino market and continued in Campo dei Fiori. It is depressing how many rubbishy stalls have taken over from the serious vendors, but we carefully steered past the vulgar aprons and obscene packets of pasta to buy fennel and truffle-flavoured salame from Viola and cheeses and prosciutto from Ruggiero.
My favourite vegetable stalls did not disappoint us and laden down with bags of greenery we struggled on to buy thin pizza bianca from the Forno to enjoy later with our antipasto. In the early evening we cooked an array of dishes then sat to enjoy them with some crisp Pecorino and smooth Sicilian reds. The next day we drove to Ferentino to cook with the chef in Trattoria Consolare and for me the highlight was the boned leg of lamb, stuffed with artichokes, mint and potatoes.
The following week I flew to Budapest and enjoyed meeting up with new friends made during last October’s Gourmet Adventure. I plan to repeat it next year so I felt no guilt as I enjoyed long decadent meals and superb local wines. I also visited the lovely Szechenyi spa but for more hedonistic self-indulgence rather than a forlorn hope of repairing the damage.
Some of my family joined me in Rome to celebrate my birthday. The weather was bright and sunny and everyone enjoyed leisurely strolls to re-visit favourite haunts. We enjoyed a great lunch at Cesare al Casaletto but even with very full tummies my grandsons went food shopping and returned to England with food parcels full of nostalgia.
The new kitten, Iffy, is trying to make friends with arrogant, domineering Tasha who at 20 years old is not prepared to give an inch. We had finally persuaded her to acknowledge the new existence although the language got very colourful when Iffy did not respect Tasha’s boundaries. Then poor little Iffy felt the first rush of hormones and the situation deteriorated as she tried to make advances to the only available cat. Tasha, who was not amused. Now Iffy has been spayed and I am keeping them apart until she has made a complete recovery.
Next year I am going to rent a beautiful villa in Sicily for our new adventure. The villa will come complete with staff and a local cook to spoil us when we feel too lazy to drive to a restaurant. She will be on hand to show us local specialities and prepare delicious nibbles for our evening aperitivo. Most of the villas I have been exploring are on the sea with private pools so I will either do May or early October. Please let me know if you have a preference.
I am getting ready for my March adventure when we will be staying in Bologna and Faenza. We will spend a morning in Modena learning about the real, traditional balsamico and visiting the Malpighi Acetaia. Then we will visit Parma, an elegant city which owes much of its charm to Napoleon’s Hapsburg wife, Marie Louise. When Napoleon was forced to abdicate the Great Powers made Marie Louise the Duchess of Parma. She founded the lovely, pale yellow Teatro Regio with Toscanini as her orchestral director. Today music lovers still come to enjoy superlative performances. The ex- Empress bought Paris fashions with her to exile and there is an amusing story of the local dress-makers feverishly copying the cast-off gowns Maria Luigia gave to her maids to satisfy the local ladies’ pretensions. The clothes shops still prove an attraction and we will window-shop as we sample gastronomic specialities.
In April we are off to Seville and Marrakech but more about that in the next newsletter.
October in Italy is magical and I usually take a group to Sicily to enjoy the sunny days and cooler nights. This year I wanted to return to Puglia, moving further south to explore Lecce and the Salento and again October seemed the ideal month. I planned a week’s break between the two adventures but in the end I decided to relax for a few days in a lovely old Masseria with spa in the countryside near Brindisi. The main Puglia adventure is 16-22 October (2750 euros) but some people will join me for three days from 13-16 to unwind, explore, and enjoy traditional dishes cooked with the Masseria’s own olive oil and produce.This is booked separately.
Greece is still on schedule for June and September and yesterday as the wind howled and the rain battered my poor hyacinths I snuggled down in my duvet and dreamed of idyllic days in the turquoise sea.
This month’s recipe
Italian lamb is small and a leg will usually feed two people. The leg needs to be boned, spread out and pounded flat. With larger lamb, outside Italy, it is probably preferable to use a lean fillet and make this version.
Lamb and artichokes
2 x 400 g loin lamb fillets
4 artichokes, cleaned and cut into segments
1 onion, chopped
Flour for dusting
1 T fresh mint leaves, lightly chopped
2 sprigs fresh mint
dry white wine
2 T extra virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper
4 potatoes, peeled and sliced (optional)
Heat a little oil and gently cook the onions and artichokes until soft. You will probably need to add a generous splash of white wine and cover the pan. Peel the potatoes then boil with a little salt and the sprigs of mint. When soft slice finely and add to the artichokes with a little more wine and mint. Allow the vegetables to become very soft. Cut the lamb into slices about 1.5 cms thick, season and dust with flour. Gently brown in a little oil, serve pink, surrounded by the artichokes and potato.